Sunday, January 13, 2008

Hoosier-ville Tales: Hoops & Horsepower

Just a Hoosier. That's what a friend of mine in college used to say - only he would add the f-ing word before Hoosier. He was from the Bronx so that may explain it, but I've come to love that phrase. Just a Hoosier.

And what does a Hoosier do as a kid? Play basketball. Go to race tracks. If you're living in Indiana-ville in the early '60's, there wasn't much else to do. Even after moving to Indy in '68, the same could be said for this big old small town. It wasn't called Naptown for nothing.

My grandpa (and namesake) took me to the county fairgrounds racetrack in Warsaw, Indiana when I was about 4. I was hooked. Little quarter mile dirt track he helped build, according to mom. Dirt flying in my face, hanging on the fence, walking through the pits, soaking up the roar. Pretty heady stuff for a young Hoosier. My dad bought me a ring-a-bell basketball set and used to take me to the gym when he played ball when I was about the same age. Most people have probably never seen a ring-a-bell set nowadays. It had a little wire rim with a bracket for hanging it on a door and a metal tongue that would literally ring a bell when the tiny ball went through the string nets. I must have driven my folks crazy playing with that thing. That probably explains why it got nailed to a tree by the driveway after awhile.

No two things have been more constant in my life: hoops and horsepower. Since I started shooting at the Indy 500 in 1984, I've spent more than 14 months of my life at the Speedway - and I mean 14 months straight if you put all the days back to back. And I guarantee I've spent more time than that in a gym or bouncing a ball somewhere.

So I guess it's no surprise that photography started entering into it in my adult life. I went to my first 500 in 1970 and have been to every one since 1976. In 1982, I was lucky to be dating a woman who was a 500 Festival Princess and got to sit right above Victory Lane for arguably the greatest 500 ever - the Mears-Johncock duel. I stood on the photographers platform for the winner's circle shots, and the yellow shirts tried to shoo me away. I just told them I was with her and they left me alone. A gang of us used to be first in the track through Gate 9A at 25th & Georgetown to get a prime infield spot along the fence in Turn 4, but that got old as friends got married off. And the photography bug bit me about the same time. The shot with this post is of Gasoline Alley in 1981, and my last year fighting the infield crowd for space was 1983. I knew there had to be a better way. So I wrote or called people to see about credentials, and Alex Persons gave me a chance with UPI. Thank you Alex!

I have been very fortunate to see a lot of great races at the Speedway, and many historic moments, including the first NASCAR test at the Brickyard. I hope to bring back many of these moments in coming posts, and dust off some old prints to show the way things used to be. Much has changed about basketball and racing in Indiana (they ruined high school basketball with the class tournament) and the 500 and open wheel racing is still suffering from the effects of the IRL-CART split, but the love of hoops and horsepower still lives on in this Hoosier.

A bad day at the racetrack (or in the gym) is still better than a lot of good days at lots of other places. See you in the turns or on the baseline.

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